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Pfizer provides as much as 40 million doses of Covid vaccine to Covax's international immunization program

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A nurse prepares the Pfizer BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine on January 10, 2021 at a vaccination center in Sarcelles near Paris.

ALAIN JOCARD | AFP | Getty Images

Pfizer will deliver up to 40 million doses of its coronavirus vaccine to a global alliance that aims to provide coronavirus vaccines to poor nations, the head of the World Health Organization said on Friday.

The agreement will enable Covax – together with the WHO – to deliver vaccine doses to the participating countries from February, said WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a press conference. Tedros added that until an emergency is approved, the program expects 150 million doses of AstraZeneca's vaccine to be available for distribution in the first quarter of this year.

The Covax program aims to provide 2 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines to participating countries, which include low- to middle-income countries, by the end of this year. The Pfizer BioNTech vaccine requires two vaccinations spaced weeks apart, suggesting the deal would only cover 20 million people.

Tedros said the deal would allow other countries with supplies of Pfizer's vaccine to donate them to the program. The WHO chief criticized wealthy nations for signing supply agreements with drug manufacturers for their starting doses of Covid-19 vaccines to stockpile supplies from poorer nations.

"This is not only important for COVAX, it is also an important step forward for equitable access to vaccines and an essential part of the global effort to fight this pandemic. We will only be safe everywhere if we are safe everywhere," so Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, said in a statement.

Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, said during the press conference that the company will make the vaccine doses available to Covax and poorer countries for a fee. Pfizer was the first company to receive a global list of emergency uses for its vaccine from the WHO, allowing other countries to expedite their regulatory approval processes to begin administering the vaccine.

Bourla said the company will help ship the cans, which require ultra-cold storage and special handling, to low-income countries. UNICEF, which is helping with the dispensing of the cans, previously warned that some of the world's poorest countries could face the challenge of storing and managing the shots upon arrival.

The program's contract with Pfizer increases supply agreements to a total of just over 2 billion doses, but negotiations for an additional supply continue. The goal, according to Covax, is to immunize healthcare and other frontline workers as well as some high-risk individuals from the first quarter of this year.

The agreement follows the United States' decision to remain a member of WHO under President Joe Biden. The new administration will also join the Covax program, a move the Trump administration opposed last year.

"I couldn't escape the temptation to say that I'm very happy that this press conference is taking place on the day the United States rejoins the WHO organization. I think it's a symbolic, great day for us," Pfizer boss Bourla said at the meeting.

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Katherine Clark